Fast Fashion May be Cheap, but it Comes at a Cost

The garment industry is taking a steep toll on people and the planet in order to keep prices low.

Would you believe that something as standard as buying a t-shirt can directly impact someone halfway around the world? That the chemicals used to color your clothes are likely polluting waterways? That with every clothing purchase you make, you are essentially voting for or against the future of the planet?

photo of garment factory
Workers at a garment factory in Vietnam. Garment industry workers, the majority of whom are women, are typically paid well below a living wage and report high rates of harassment in the workplace. Photo by ILO Asia-Pacific.

These might not be the first things that come to mind when you decide where to buy your new pants and sweaters and shoes, but the links between “fast fashion,” human rights issues, and the environment are well established.

As Solene Rauturier writes in a post for Good On You, an organization that rates fashion brands in terms of their sustainability: “Cheap, trendy clothing that samples ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture, and turns them into garments in high street stores at breakneck speed.”

Or as Ayesha Barenblat, founder of Remake, a nonprofit that focuses on helping people move away from fast-fashion and move towards living a sustainable lifestyle, puts it: “I think of fast fashion very much like fast food. It was marketed to us as convenient and cheap.”

The key word both Rauturier and Barenblat’s definitions is “cheap.” What does it really mean for a sweater at H&M to cost as little as $9.99? And who is paying the price to produce such inexpensive clothing?

To answer that question, we need to look at how clothing is made. The process begins with the materials the garment is made out of. These days, most clothes are made out of synthetic fibers, AKA, plastics like nylon or polyester. Like other plastics, they are often created from oil or coal. And once created, they won’t decompose for hundreds of years. (Not to mention that when these clothes are washed, they release tiny microscopic pieces of plastic, which find their way into our oceans and harm ocean-dwelling animals.)

Textiles are commonly treated with harsh chemicals as well, which often end up in rivers and streams near textile facilities. A common type of chemical, for example, is alkylphenol ethoxylates, which can be used to dye fabrics different colors, or to clean them, are known to be toxic to wildlife. Other hazardous chemicals are used to increase fabric durability. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, which have been linked to hormone disruption, are used to fireproof materials, and perfluorinated chemicals, which have been linked to impacts on fetal development and an increased risk of certain cancers, create water-proof fabrics. But these synthetic fibers treated with chemicals are “cheap” compared to natural fiber — so long as you don’t tally the cost to the environment.

Once the fibers are created and the fabrics are woven, the production phase begins. This is when material is sewn into an item of clothing, perhaps a t-shirt or a pair of jeans — a process completed by factory workers with the help of industrial machines. From textile production to sewing and stitching, the production process comes with a steep climate cost: In 2015, the textiles sector emitted more greenhouse gas emissions than the international shipping industry and the aviation industry combined.

The resulting clothes — which come from well-known stores like Zara, H&M, and the now-bankrupt Forever 21 — often have a short lifespan, falling apart after a few uses. This means many of the roughly 840 million garments that Zara makes every year quickly end up in landfills, and consumers are left to buy new ones, contributing to the production cycle — and associated environmental costs — once again.

Fast-fashion takes a steep toll on people as well. Many clothing items are made in poor countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and India where labor is cheap and not well regulated. According to Remake, few garment makers are paid a living wage. A typical wage in Bangladesh, for example, is $97 per month.

Of the one-in-six people on the planet working in the fashion supply chain, 80 percent are women in their early 20s. Men are almost always in charge at the garment factories, and women are rarely given opportunities to move up in the workplace. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread sexual harassment in the industry, including in garment factories in India, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. Women on short-term contracts, or working under other casual forms of employment, are especially vulnerable.

“The cost of fast-fashion really is the bodies of black and brown women who power this industry around the world, who are placed in risky situations, but also kept in a cycle of poverty and oppression through the wages they make,” Barenblat says.

But there’s another side of the garment industry: sustainable-fashion. As Remake defines it: “This term usually means eco-friendly practices in the fashion industry, referencing the approach of designing, producing, and consuming clothes that respect the planet by causing little to no damage.”

Let’s start with sustainable design. This means designing clothes that will last a long time, and have a useful purpose. For instance, designing a t-shirt made for everyday rather than one-time use. Material is also a crucial choice. Materials that are plant based — like organic cotton, merino wool, modal (made from beech trees), or sustainably sourced silk — are typically more environmentally friendly than synthetic fibers. Some companies that use sustainable materials in at least some of their products are Marine Layer, Organic Basics, Pact, Patagonia, and Reformation. Designer’s using synthetic materials can reduce their environmental footprint by using recycled polyester or other recycled fabrics, or even using other recycled items, like plastic water bottles, to create their fabrics, as The Girlfriend Collective does, though these clothes can still shed microplastics. (While these brands are doing great things for the environment, some of their clothes may not be affordable for everyone.)

Of course, just because the fabrics are natural or plant based doesn’t mean they are necessarily sustainable. For example, clothing made out of conventionally grown cotton may come from crops that were treated with pesticides, whereas organic cotton would not. Natural fibers may still be treated with chemicals, and can require big resource inputs: It can take 2,720 liters of water (that’s three year’s worth of drinking water) just to produce the cotton needed to create one t-shirt.

On the production side, it’s more sustainable to choose clothes produced in countries with higher wages, stricter environmental laws, and greater worker protections. It’s also best to buy clothes made closer to home, due to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with shipping of clothes.

And then there’s consumption of the clothes. Consumers can extend the lifespan of their clothes by following care instructions, and push back their next trip to the store for a replacement. They can also reduce the impact the washing process has on the environment – for example, if you’re washing a garment made of recycled plastic, using one of the various microplastic-catching balls, or bags, or filters on the market can reduce the flow of plastics to the ocean from your laundry machine

Of course, we all have those special occasions that come up in our lives where we need something nice to wear, something we’ll only wear once and that may not be easily found in a sustainable option. Barenblat says that clothing rental stores are a great way to shop sustainably and on a budget for these types of events. These stores will rent nice dresses or outfits to people for a day or so for a reasonable price. Thrift stores, filled with previously loved clothes, or used clothes, are another option.

Barenblat says that people can think of sustainable fashion as a lifestyle choice, not just as a shopping choice: “With billions of people on the planet, we are not going to be able to buy ourselves out of this mess.” As she sees it, we should all buy less, shop with a purpose, and not just for fun, and wear our values. Every clothing purchase we make can directly affect someone else’s life and the future of the planet, for the worse or for the better.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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